H1N1 reveals cities could be severely impacted by an epidemic

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Let me first be clear about the fact that I'm not a doctor or researcher specializing in the spread of infectious diseases. Nope, I'm merely one lowly blogger living in a big city where the concern over contracting H1N1 has reached a fevered pitch.

What we're experiencing now with H1N1 (aka Swine Flu) is officially called a pandemic, but what happens if (some say 'when') a major epidemic spreads around the world? How will it impact our biggest cities? How will our local economies be affected? Will mass transportation need to be shut down? How quickly will the disease spread? Are people in cities going to be impacted differently than our cousins living in rural communities? These are the types of questions some people are now asking of our civic officials in order to determine if we're prepared to take on this type of challenge as a society.

Over the last 72 hours or so, I've been in an out of Surrey Memorial Hospital as my critically ill father-in-law was rushed there by ambulance on Sunday. What I can report after having spent the better part of three days in the emergency ward is that the hospital system is taxed to the max. The waiting room appears like a scene out of a Hollywood horror movie with dozens of gravely ill people dawning medical face masks queuing up for their turn to meet stressed out medical staff. In a nanosecond, you are acutely aware that anything you come into contact with has a good likelihood of being contaminated with H1N1. Hence the need to regularly wash your hands and use hand sanitizer to kills all those germs while visiting the hospital.

The whole experience got me thinking about a couple of key questions facing urban centres. If we were to be hit with a global epidemic, how would our major cities cope? Secondly, does living in a high-density community put you at greater risk of contracting an infectious disease than living in a less populated, rural community?

Just think about it for a moment; if a disease such as H1N1 can be spread through close contact, would we find ourselves in the position of having to shut down mass transit? If so, how would people get to work? Would we face gridlock as people rushed to get into their vehicles to commute back and forth? Would this type of lock down translate into a massive hit on our economy?

In order to find out some of those answers, in particular to how quickly any disease can spread, it really does come down to math. Yes, the battle against today's infectious diseases is not only tackled through high profile vaccination programs, but also through the use of mathematics.

David Fisman
Dr. David Fisman

When the SARS crisis hit Toronto a number of years ago, it was a group of mathematicians that quickly worked together to build the models to advise government and health officials regarding how quickly the disease could spread through the Toronto area and beyond. The mathematical tools that were created helped public officials determine whether airports or rapid transit should be shut down. They've also become a vital tool in helping to plan for and fight future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

In the name of full disclosure, I must advise our readers that I work for a mathematics organization that formed part of this SARS team. As a non-academic, I've come to appreciate how mathematicians play a role in almost every aspect of my life from morning 'til night. However, during the current H1N1 scare, their algorithms and models can mean the difference between life and death.

On Friday November 6th, MITACS is sponsoring a free public lecture with Dr. David Fisman, a leading expert in how infectious diseases are spread. He is based out of Toronto at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

He plans to speak about about how Canada’s mathematicians are helping to guide smart, efficient and effective use of vaccines, antiviral drugs and other interventions in the fight against H1N1. If you live in Metro Vancouver and are interested in attending the free public lecture, here are the details:

Friday, November 6th
11:30 – 12:30 pm
Frederic Wood Theatre
6354 Crescent Road
University of British Columbia

If you're unable to attend the public lecture, an audio cast of it will be posted at www.mitacs.ca in the coming weeks.

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